Learn your Science lingo before the HSC
Whether you’re taking Physics, Chemistry, Biology, or another science, one thing you’re going to come up against time and time again in both Year 11 and 12 is dealing with HSC Keywords
These are the ‘signposting words’ that begin a written response question, like ‘explain’, ‘describe’, ‘outline’, ‘analyse’, and more. The full list can be found on the NESA website in alphabetical order – however, we’ve organised them here into 3 tiers of increasing difficulty based on the requirements of each word, to help you appreciate what to expect when you see a question headed by certain words.
Tier 1: Recalling and Presenting Knowledge
Tier 1 is the lowest tier of keywords, typically assigned the fewest number of marks in questions. Tier 1 includes the following words:
So what do all these words have in common? Essentially, they’re just asking you to remember and present knowledge you already have, without necessarily using it or applying it to information in the question to reach new conclusions (with the possible exception of calculate, which of course signposts a numerical question).
These are typically 1 or 2 mark questions, or perhaps at most 3. While they require that you have knowledge of the syllabus, they don’t require you to necessarily manage to use that knowledge in a new way in the context of the question; they’re just trying to get you to prove you have that knowledge at all.
Some examples include the following:
Tier 2: Applying your knowledge to the question in your answer
Tier 2 is characterised by requiring you to use your knowledge rather than just recall it as in Tier 1. This tier includes the following words:
What all these terms have in common is that you’re required to apply your knowledge, sometimes in combination with facts in the question, to create your answer.
Each of them require some level of understanding and comprehending information you’re given, before applying your own physical, chemical or biological knowledge to create an answer.
Also included in this category are words that require you to compare and contrast different parts of your syllabus knowledge; for example, ‘compare’, ‘contrast’, and ‘distinguish’.
These keywords may be applied to questions with marking schemes as low as 2 marks, though often they can stretch into the 4-8 mark range (especially for a large-scale comparison questions).
With answering larger ‘compare’, ‘contrast’ or ‘distinguish’ questions, students should realise that the marking scheme is almost always a function of the number of items to be compared, across the number of aspects to be compared. HINT: Use a table to make sure you don’t miss anything!
Some examples include:
Tier 3: Combine multiple areas of syllabus knowledge with facts or data in the question to make a value judgement or reach a conclusion.
Tier 3 is the most challenging tier of keywords and is typically assigned the most marks. This tier includes the following words:
Words in this tier are set apart by a particular set of characteristics: you have to draw on various parts of your own knowledge, often combining it with data presented in the question, and, very frequently, make a ‘value judgement’.
In fact, a significant number of the words above even include the term ‘value judgement’ in their description: ‘appreciate’, ‘assess’, ‘critically (…)’, and ‘evaluate’, and others of them also require a similar judgement of value even if they don’t explicitly say so – for example, in justify, you should be providing a justification which essentially amounts to a value judgement.
The key point here is: You can’t get full marks without a value judgement if you’re presented with one of these words. Sophistication and level of detail is important, but in the marking rubric, there’s always 1 mark for including a value judgement. This means saying something like ‘and therefore the Haber process is a fascinating balance of conflicting equilibrium and kinetic factors’, or ‘and hence near-light-speed travel would create significant communication and logistic difficulties due to the constancy of the speed of light under Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity’, even if it’s very obvious that these things are true. You must explicitly summarise or reiterate the judgement you are making to get that mark. To ensure you get this final mark, it may be worth writing and underlining ‘Assessment’ or ‘Justification’ at the end of your response, making it clear to the marker you’ve done exactly what the question instructed.
Some examples include:
Remember, in the HSC Sciences, specificity and accuracy are very important. Understanding what the question is requiring of you by knowing which keyword means what can give you invaluable insights into the how the question might be marked. Understanding the syllabus is as important as knowing syllabus content, so make sure to familiarise yourself with the HSC Sciences Keywords before your next assessment or exam.